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Moldova – The Undiscovered Country

This report is not a diary or based on what I wrote down each day. I did not have the time; it is based upon my recollections and material snaffled from other places in order that facts might be kept straight. Think of it as a brief user manual to the place. It is of course incomplete. There are unknown spots everywhere. It would be great if you guys were able to fill in some of the blank bits!

This is a piece about a place that intrigued, fascinated and confused me. I came away knowing that I want to go back...soon.

All I can do is tell you why, make your own mind up and maybe visit this fascinating country.

I did not travel to Moldova for sex, if you want to read about my sexual exploits and conquests you might as well stop right here. But, being Andrew, this is written from a single man’s viewpoint!

Hardly anyone knows anything about the country, some do not know where it is. Some think it is a country at war and full of criminal elements who would kill you for your passport. The only thing anybody who HAS heard of the place thinks they know is that it is poor, piss poor. The last is true, partly; the rest is either untrue or vastly exaggerated!

I flew to Kishinev (Russian spelling) from Moscow (Vnukovo airport) after my stay in Shanghai. The cost was $183 return on Air Moldova, a fine little airline flying little Tupolevs. Very pleasant staff and a good flight. The weight limit is 20kg including hand baggage. 9kg extra weight cost me $30. I hate Vnukovo, but the Muscovite folk flying to Alicante and Tenerife were often gorgeous. The number of lovely Russian women fair set my heart racing as I sat guarding my luggage against shifty looking Russian types. (BTW two guys tried to run the ‘Discovered Money’ scam on me, it did not work, but they were good and set me on my guard!)

When I arrived at the Kishinev terminal I purchased a visa for $60 valid for one month. No photo was asked for, even though the form had a space for one, but I would take one with you, as they do not appear to have a photo machine available. I do not think that it is worthwhile to obtain a visa in advance. You might have to wait a while if there are many visa less folk in front of you but it is better than no passport for a couple of weeks dealing with things by mail in advance.

The airport is small, modern, efficient and clean. The most odd thing was taxiing past a load of planes, the same as mine but looking like they were being stripped for parts…

At this point, a little background is necessary as it coloured what I saw and did for the next two weeks. It is unlikely that you will be able to enjoy the same set-up as I had, but as you will read, this has both advantages and disadvantages!

I was travelling to join a Summer University at ULIM in Kishinev. I was to be hosted at the University guesthouse and would be in the company of students and professionals (consultants/NGOs etc) throughout my stay.

Very friendly students who drove me to my guesthouse met me at the airport. My first impressions of the city were mainly good. The weather was fine and sunny, always the best way to see a place. The city was, at the height of summer, still green, the roads were wide, without too much traffic and what I saw of suburban apartment blocks was no worse than other ex Soviet stuff I have seen.

Arriving at the guesthouse on Vasily Lupu Street, the place looked ok from the outside, entering the living areas was a different story. Up to 280 people live here; there was a maximum of four shower heads (cold water only) and four toilets (no toilet seat, no toilet paper). The bedroom was shared with two other guys. The bedding was no longer white but brown, the bed sagged almost to the floor and the room stank of dirty people. This was not how I had planned to spend the next two weeks.

Here, I should warn you, do not stay in cheap accommodation; you will end up with something like this, perhaps with a room to yourself but no more! There are some decent hotels, one of the best; the Jolly Allon, near the German Embassy charges $135 per night for a single room but are happy to negotiate significant discounts. (Whilst walking past the embassy one night I was stopped by a soldier, I was a touch worried until I realised that he was just bumming a cigarette. There is a first time for everything!).

If you want a decent apartment then a comfortable single bedroom apartment with bathroom, kitchen, lounge etc on Stephan Cel Mare (the main street in the centre) should cost no more than $45 per night.

Sitting outside the guesthouse awaiting the return of my hosts, I was able to see the people walking by. Obviously not well off but healthy. The women were generally very attractive. The men less so but that may be a matter of sexual preference!

How things work
Firstly almost everything is cheap. MacDonald’s is a good indicator. A Big Mac Meal is 24 Lei. ($2), but most Moldavians cannot afford these prices. For more ordinary folk, a decent pizza with a soda can cost as little as 8 Lei!

European mobile phones will work just fine here; the two companies have roaming agreements all over the place. It is not cheap though! You could consider buying a prepay card from one of the many phone shops here. You Americans with older technology ;) are out of luck! Coverage is not fantastic but serves in most city areas. Not good outside Kishinev however.

Local pay phones are cheap and plentiful. They work by phone card available at kiosks everywhere. If you want to make just occasional calls then just use a card provided by a lady sitting next to the phone booth. She will charge you one Lei per ‘impulse’, cheap for ordinary calls but expensive for calls to mobiles. If you want to call internationally then either use your hotel, mobile or visit the telephone centre on Stephan Cel Mare, about 5 minutes walk along from the Central Post office, near the junction with Tighina street (I think). You buy time and sit in a kiosk, cheap, but a pain in the arse!

Internet access is available from many places the best I found overall was near ULIM across from the Central Post Office. There are about 12 machines in good order with a good connection. The cost was 12 Lei per hour. The place also serves coffee, beer and pastries; being near the university gives plenty of opportunity to watch the scenery. Whilst there, on one occasion I watched a woman engaged in some fairly horny chat with her European lover, she was not so lovely, I was left wondering whether the guy had ever seen her!

I found that English with a few words of Russian was adequate for most things. Educated young people all speak English. I was quite surprised at the level of competence. Romanian is not difficult to read if you have any familiarity with the Romance languages, at least to understand signs and menus!

The local currency is the Lei, of which there are about 12.8 Lei to the US$. The Lei is is convertible only within the country. This is not a problem. There are loads of currency exchangers who offer very similar rates; some are open 24 hours (though why escapes me). You can transfer money by Western Union in many places, a consequence of Moldova’s greatest export; people!

Credit cards are not useable in many places but there are ATMs available. There is one on Stephan Cel Mare almost opposite to MacDonald’s that is outside the bank inside a telephone kiosk affair for security and privacy and a new one outside the Central Post Office. The machines appeared to be reliable; I guess they serve the NGO industry.

Do not try to exchange unusual currencies, stick to Sterling, US$, DM, Roubles, Ukraine and Romanian paper. You may be able to change the other less common stuff at a price, but you really do not want to go onto the black market. BTW do not use the black market for ordinary transactions, you will probably be shafted, arrested or both!

As folk do not have a lot of money the small denomination notes are heavily used, collect and maintain a supply of 1 and 5 Lei notes, it will save endless grief and collection of candies, chewing gum and cigarettes! The local banking system completely collapsed a few years ago and so small shops and businesses do not trust banks, this exacerbates the change problem. Coins are useful only to give to beggars and to pay for bus rides. Generally you do not use dollars for transactions, locals will think you are mad. Dollars are for saving, not spending here! This probably excludes the more ‘traditional’ cash businesses but even here Lei work just fine.

There is plentiful accommodation although there are not many hotels. Costs range from $11 to $170 per night for a single room but I would not recommend the cheapest! There is an agency:

Adresa B-dul Negruzzi 1, tel. (+373-2) 26 64 14/26 46 98, tel./fax (+373-2) 26 20 96. Open 09:00 - 21:00, Sat 09:00 - 18:00.

that provides apartments and rooms at a range of prices. Like most of the CIS good hotels tend to be expensive and cheap ones are horrid. Apartments look good value at $45 -$50 per night for a decent central place. If you make contact with locals and are staying a while you should be able to get a good place for $70 a week.

It is not uncommon for hot water to be unavailable and sometimes heating, people I met told me that they had had no hot water for three years. This is due to the decrepit central heating system used in Kishinev. It is worth asking about these things before parting with money for a hotel or apartment. I can make no recommendations here, as I was not using this stuff.
I was shown a nice apartment on Stephan Cel Mare, the central street that would have cost $45 per night. I have a phone number to make contact, other apartments for as little as $20 daily are available from the same source but I cannot vouch for these, as I have not seen them.

Some of the better hotels in Kishinev.

National from $57

Meridian from $67

Cosmos from $79

Codru from $99

Dacia from $132

Monte-Nelly from $154

Jolly Alon from $171

Discounts are available quite easily. Jolly Alon were quickly able to offer me a room for $135 with a promise of further reductions if I was staying for a few days.

Getting around is easy. Kishinev is not a big city. There are four main forms of transport:

Walking which is easy and pleasant in the central area.

Taxis, with most central journeys not costing more than 20-25 Lei, (negotiate on entry, cabs have no meters) are very convenient. Unlike Russia there are no ‘Gypsy Cabs’.

Trolley bus, which is a kind of tram/bus hybrid covering most main parts of the city and suburbs - journeys, cost 50Banu (.5Lei).

Maxi taxis, which are small busses plying a regular route. You can use these to get on and off pretty much wherever on the route you wish. The cost of these very handy vehicles is 2 Lei.

There are ordinary buses but I did not use these at all, no need, the cost is just 75 banu.

Public transport finishes at about midnight and can be very crowded. I used the Maxi taxis and taxis in the main and found them easy and reliable but they are not limousines!

I was told that if I wanted a car then a renting a car and driver should cost no more than about $20 per day. A good way of travelling around if you choose not to use public transport or want to visit tourist sites off the beaten track.

A taxi to the airport from the centre should not cost more than 70-80 Lei, the other way round may be more expensive as the airport cars are quite nice and seem to be in good condition.

Dining out is no problem, most of the food is familiar to European / US stomachs and I had no digestive problems. Vegetarianism is a primitive sort of idea here and seems mainly to consist of the salad and accompanying vegetables served without meat. As a confirmed omnivore this is no problem to me. There is quite a lot of dumpling style food, fresh vegetables and fruits in season are pleasant and meat is fine. Portions are however noticeably small. Most restaurants display the weights of the major components of a dish, a typically Soviet idea going back to days of rationing. It does help menu selection and value comparison though! The main local delicacy is a Polenta style dish called Mamiglia (sp?). I had one opportunity to savour this delight but turned it down as the menu, in English translation, described the meal as ‘cornmeal mush’. The Northern Italian guy I was with confirmed the superiority of they dish in his native part of Italy. On the whole, little seasoning and spicing is used.

There are several MacDonald’s branches in the city. For more sophisticated palates, there are plenty of inexpensive cafeterias and quite few restaurants. You can eat Indian, Italian or Chinese if you wish, no recommendations here though.

Cheap stuff: just wander around, if there are a lot of locals then it is probably: 1-Cheap. 2-OK. Food will be from pizza to local style.

Mid Price: such places as Vista and Green Hills, both on 31 August 1989 street, Oscar, on Stephan Cel Mare etc have a wide range of dishes of both international and local origin. Main course will run from under 30 to about 60 Lei, with beer at about 9 Lei for local brews. I would recommend the two local brands; Arc and Vitanta in it’s various forms, good beer and no rip off pricing. Usual measure is 500ml.

Up Market: Magnolia and Pannupit, near City Club on 31 August 1989 street (sp?) will have main courses from 40-90 Lei. These are good for impressing the ladies, but be careful, you may well find your companion is entirely unused to dining out, particularly if she is young!

A good meal for two should not cost more than $25 if you push the boat out. I exclude from this list hotel restaurants etc, as these are, as usual, an avoidable rip-off.

MacDonald’s on Stephan Cel Mare is well worth a visit. Sitting outside is a particular delight. You can listen to beautiful women arranging their own sale and export to overseas purchasers. They try to look and sound so sophisticated but they seem to have no idea of what they are letting themselves in for. The place is also near to several bus stops and the central park so many, many lovely girls will pass by. (Incidentally, there seems to be many more women than men, a look on the street suggests this and conversations with locals back it up.)

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